|INSIDE STORY: Paul Toohey | September 26, 2009
Article from: The Australian
IN hospitals around Australia, soldiers who have been seriously wounded in Afghanistan are checked in under false names in order to protect them from the public eye.
One Afghanistan veteran, in his early 20s, is in a private hospital in NSW. He has lost both his legs. The doctors and nurses treating him are sworn to secrecy. Were someone to ring the hospital's reception, asking for him by his real name, he would not exist.
As far as the public knows, his terrible injuries never happened. There was no media release from the Defence Department giving even cursory details of this man's suffering. While the dead - there have been 11 Australians killed in Afghanistan - are seen coming home in coffins, in tragic airfield ramp ceremonies, discussion about the badly wounded, who come home in secret, is off limits.
Silence is now official policy. Defence told The Weekend Australian: "In order to protect the privacy of wounded personnel and to aid convalescence, Defence does not publicly release details of the repatriation of wounded personnel. Tragically, some of these have been seriously wounded. However, the figures also include those with minor wounds who recover quickly and continue to serve in theatre."
Australia knows almost nothing about its wounded soldiers. Defence revealed, in response to questions from The Weekend Australian, that 83 soldiers had suffered various forms of wounds in Afghanistan since late 2005, when Australians re-engaged in the war. It says the soldiers have a range of damage, from severe bruising, concussion and fractures, to gunshot and shrapnel wounds and significant blast trauma. Any further breakdown of those figures is not available.
statistic in a Defence media release. Or he may not. Since late 2005, Defence has issued 22 media releases relating to only 52 of the 83 wounded ADF personnel.
Veterans, old and young, believe Australia is not even getting half the picture of what's happening to ADF personnel in the deteriorating Afghanistan war.
They fear for the long-term mental cost on soldiers who are asked to fight a hidden war. They worry the public has little understanding of what they're going through, and have little appreciation of the soldiers' sacrifice.
Although Defence seems willing, in some cases, to disclose that unnamed soldiers have been wounded by improvised explosive devices, or roadside bombs, they close ranks at any mention of soldiers being shot in battle. Unless, that is, they are forced to discuss it.
When nine members of the Special Operations Task Group were hit by heavy rocket and machinegun fire in an attack on the Taliban in September last year, Defence had no intention of releasing any details about the battle after the casualties were brought in.
In a briefing two months later, special operations commander Major General Tim McOwan complained that news of the battle "was leaked and found its way into the Australian media".
Because of the leak, Defence was forced to confirm the incident, in which Trooper Mark Donaldson became the first Australian to win a Victoria Cross in 40 years. McOwan said the Taliban exploited the news on local radio stations the same day.
"In essence," he said, "an information release by us afforded them a propaganda opportunity."
It appears, however, that some serving troops in Afghanistan felt their fellow Australians deserved to know that members of the SOTG - made up of SAS, the 4th Battalion, and commandos - had just faced the bloodiest combat seen by Diggers since Vietnam. That is why they "leaked" it. For many soldiers, the age-old war veteran mindset of keeping your war stories bottled up means many recently returned vets do not feel comfortable discussing their recovery, even if Defence were to give them the all-clear to do so.
But the blackout on information may also mean wounded soldiers receive no acknowledgement in society.
Australian Special Air Service Association national president Dave Lewis says: "I'm sure Australia has no idea how some of these guys have suffered the most horrendous injuries. I know one who was shot six times in the chest and stomach and no one has a clue about him. That's a bit sad, for me.
"I'd like to see some of their stories told. Some of them have very serious stories to tell. In 15 years' time, no one will be interested."
It would be ghoulish and unwarranted to demand that wounded soldiers display their wounds. It is up to the soldier to decide whether or not to discuss the worst moment of his life.
Lewis says wounded Afghanistan vets don't want to talk. "They're all cranky and they claim they haven't been treated well," he says. "Their expectations were that if they were shot, then people (within Defence) would fall over backwards to help them. It hasn't come to reality.
"I've tried to persuade them to talk, tell them that people need to k